Canton couple advocates for kidney cancer awareness after husband receives diagnosis

March is Kidney Cancer Awareness Month

CANTON, Mich. – You’ve probably heard that March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, but did you know that it is also Kidney Cancer Awareness Month?

According to the American Cancer Society, about 81,800 new cases of kidney cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. Kidney cancer is among the 10 most common cancers in both men and women, but most people know far less about this cancer than many others. A Canton couple hopes to help change that.

After 42 years together, Tom and Kathy Russell are the ultimate team. That’s true whether they’re tackling a challenging puzzle -- or battling cancer.

It was March of last year when Tom noticed something strange.

“I was starting to have double vision, which was a concern for driving, but also in the warehouse when I was working, pulling orders and things, I felt like I was going to fall. I felt like I was going to fall to the left,” Tom said.

At first, they weren’t overly concerned. “I’m thinking well, you know, maybe vertigo or you know, something inner ear,” Kathy explained.

But when they went to see Tom’s doctor, she sent them straight to the emergency room for tests. “A couple hours later, they came back into the room and said it was cancer,” Tom said.

There were tumors in his brain, on his lung, in his kidney, liver, and some soft tissue.

“I was totally shocked. I had no idea that this had been going on inside,” Tom said.

“He went from being 100% feeling good to having stage four kidney cancer. And that was hard,” Kathy said.

“That was all in an evening,” Tom said.

“Our world changed completely in one evening,” Kathy agreed.

Tom was ultimately diagnosed with clear cell renal cell carcinoma. It’s cancer that forms in the tubes that filter waste from the blood. Under the microscope, the cancer cells look like clear bubbles. It’s the most common type of kidney cancer.

“In terms of the cancers that people get, it’s much less common than, say colon cancer or breast cancer, prostate cancer,” Kathy said.

The Russells say the past year has been a long journey, with Tom receiving targeted radiation to treat the tumors in his brain, along with immunotherapy and chemotherapy. Each treatment brings potential benefits, but also the risk of side effects.

“His first round of immunotherapy threw him into liver failure and then his first round of chemotherapy caused acute kidney damage, so those had to all be stopped,” Kathy said.

But the second line of treatments are working. The tumors in Tom’s brain and one lung lesion are gone. Another lung lesion and his kidney tumor have been reduced by half.

“In stage four, stable is a good word,” Kathy said. “We would love to go for shrinkage or no evidence of disease, but we’re happy with stable because that means it’s not growing, it’s not progressing or not getting worse.”

As they continue to fight Tom’s cancer, they also want to help others by raising awareness -- something that is key for research funding and early diagnosis.

“To me, the more people know, the better equipped they are for everything,” Kathy said.

Kidney cancer is highly treatable if it’s caught early, but experts say too often it’s not -- either because the cancer doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages or because the symptoms aren’t enough to send someone to their doctor.

“Through some of the research, they’re finding that actually kidney cancer is very responsive, especially if it’s caught early, to some of these new medications and treatment lines and so anything that we can do to bring awareness for people is really important,” Kathy said.

Some red flags to watch for are blood in the urine, fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, low back pain on one side, or a lump on the side or lower back.

Looking back, Tom says he was experiencing some shortness of breath, but that was after the cancer had already spread to his lungs.

“The more awareness the better. If something doesn’t feel right, go get checked,” Tom said.

Tom continues to undergo treatment and gets scans every three months to monitor the cancer.

Together with their son Mike, the Russells are hoping for brighter days ahead.

“I’m very determined,” Tom said. “The medications are shrinking the tumors, so I hope this continues.”

“He has fought this and done whatever needs to be done, and he’s going to keep on,” Kathy said. “We’re in this together. Tom doesn’t get early release for good behavior. He’s stuck with me. So he’s gonna be around a lot longer.”

To learn more about kidney cancer, visit these websites: